In the past, Philip Jenkins always had a crew. Now, he’s a one-man team.
He’d worked his way through golf courses across the Eastern U.S., climbing his way to assistant superintendent of TPC Sawgrass, home to THE PLAYERS Championship.
Yet, just four years after taking the job, he decided to change it up. Jenkins is now the golf course superintendent at Palm Valley Golf Club & Practice Range in Ponte Vedra, Florida. The par-3 executive course and practice facility is just 10 miles south of TPC Sawgrass, but it’s an entirely different world.
It might not seem like the typical move – from a PGA to a mom-and-pop operation – but it is one that has allowed Jenkins to challenge himself and better learn his trade.
“If I could do it all over, I would have come to a place like this at the beginning, and then I would have gone to a TPC Sawgrass,” he said.
Finding a career path
His start in agronomy happened by chance.
He enrolled at South Carolina State University but eventually fell out of school. He worked in a warehouse until a phone call changed his course.
“I got a call from a temporary agency that said ‘Hey, we got an opening at Orangeburg Country Club, are you interested?’,” Jenkins said. “I was, like, ‘You know what, sure, it’ll be better than this warehouse.’”
In April 2012, he began working at OCC. He worked there for a year, learning the ropes, and asked to come back the following year. His boss said he would take him back – on the condition that he went to school to better prepare him for the job.
And he did just that. Jenkins enrolled at Horry-Georgetown Technical College in 2013, where he earned his associates degree in turf and turfgrass management. In school Jenkins learned the “why” and dove deeper into the field that he had picked up in his temp position at OCC.
A chance for something new
Jenkins’ path to TPC Sawgrass wasn’t necessarily a straight one. He worked two years while in school at Grande Dunes in Myrtle Beach as an equipment operator. He graduated in 2015 and was hired as the assistant superintendent at Florence Country Club, a job he held for more than two years.
From there, he left South Carolina for Florida and made it to TPC in Ponte Vedra. He and a crew prepared the course, and he learned to do so perfectly for the players and cameras.
But working at the game’s highest level at one of the most famous courses in the world came with its own challenges. The biggest change came from “the demand to execute.”
“When the PLAYERS Tournament comes around, from Sunday to Sunday we worked 120 hours,” Jenkins remembered. “I needed a break, and this seemed like a good opportunity to try (something new).”
Palm Valley was something new.
The 9-hole course also houses a large driving range, which Jenkins says is the property’s most popular attraction. Jack and Sue Hord bought the land bordered by horse farms 30 years ago, wanting to create a place where beginners and amateur golfers could develop their game and a love for the sport.
They succeeded in creating such an atmosphere. It’s that culture and atmosphere that drives Jenkins to work.
“To be able to go to a place where it’s affordable and try to help a local business – a mom and pop business – that’s what it’s about,” he said. “We’re hardworking people … it’s just a family environment.
“There’s something about creating an environment for people to develop a love for something and a safe space for kids to come out and thrive.”
A one-man band
Unlike other courses he’s worked on, Jenkins now works alone. The owners will help if Jenkins gets bogged down with mowing or other tasks, but he has no crew, making it challenging to do everything that he wants to do with the place.
“That’s the biggest challenge of the place is the budget, the resources, (not) having a crew,” he said. “I work by myself, so there are often times where there are major agronomic practices that need to be incorporated, but because we don’t have the labor force and the budget to bring someone in to help out, it gets a little difficult in those avenues. But we make do, we do the best we can, and we do what we can with what we have.”
Since he’s a one-man band, Jenkins’ day begins at 5:30 a.m., when he starts mowing and blowing greens. Once he’s done with the greens, he rakes bunkers. From there, projects vary by the day.
Some days Jenkins focuses on short grass like greens, other days on the rough. Some days call for spraying – fungicides or nutritionals – or other needs anywhere on the course, like taking care of weeds, pine islands, edging and more.
It’s hard work, but Jenkins gets it done.
With fewer than 15 staff members at the course, he wears more hats than just superintendent; sometimes picking the driving range or other tasks. At the end of the day, he knows he’s making an impact.
“It’s super challenging and it gets frustrating sometimes, but it’s worthwhile in the end for me,” he said. “You can’t really measure my impact at TPC Sawgrass, but when you come to a mom and pop, and you’re the only guy working, you can gauge my impact.”
Jenkins has more on his plate than just Palm Valley. At home, he has three kids – a 1-year-old, 6-year-old twin boys and one more on the way – and a guitar. Jenkins, a golf man, is also a musician.
“Before I got into turf, I was doing music pretty frequently,” he said. “And I still do, which was another reason I kind of left TPC Sawgrass. Now I have a little bit more time and a better schedule to be flexible to do other things.”
He plays at a local church on the weekends, and a few other gigs here and there. He said he also does some session work at his home, providing instrumentation for those who need it.
“My dad is a preacher and my mom is a musician,” he said. “Music has always been in my blood; it’s always something I have done. It’s a gift that I’ve had since I was a kid – I didn’t ask for it. (A guitar) just kind of got placed in my hands and I ended up being pretty good with it. That’s something I’ve always done, will continue to do and hopefully pass it off to my kids.”
He also hits the sticks when he can, using the practice range since employees are able to use the facilities.
Paving a new way forward
Something else about Jenkins: he’s a trailblazer as a Black man in a predominantly white field.
“It’s no secret that there aren’t many African Americans in the field of agronomy,” he said. “I’ve been in plenty of rooms where I’ve either been in the short minority or the only African American in the room. And I’ve been fortunate enough to work with people that have really helped me get to where I am. I’m really grateful to the golf community for how they embraced me and helped me get to where I am.”
He hopes he can show others like him that they can achieve what he has.
“It’s been the golf community that has really embraced me, and I just hope to make agronomy available to people where I’m from and show them that this is a field where you can make a difference and make a solid career out of.”
And a great career he has made. His advice to someone entering the field:
“Keep your head down, work hard, and when you look up, you’ll see greatness,” he said. “If you’re scared to take an opportunity, you should take it. Don’t let fear be the reason you won’t go.”
He took the job at Palm Valley over a year ago, and the fruits of his labor are showing. Greens and the areas surrounding them are filling in, and the course looks better than how he found it. Jenkins hasn’t ruled out moving courses in the future – if he ever does, he said the area would have to be the right fit for his family – but right now he’s enjoying being able to help shape a local course, where change can be seen.
“To be able to make a change over time and for it to be noticeable, that’s what I’m proud of,” he said. “And that I’m actually being able to make a name for myself in the industry as somebody who is actually passionate about grass-growing and creating a good environment for the game.
“Whenever I get someone from the area to come out and say, ‘Hey man, we see the place improving,’ that’s the best for me. Anytime I get to have conversations with people and they’re like ‘I used to play here when I was a kid and I just started coming back with my kids and we see the greens improving, this place getting better,’ those are the memories I cherish.”